Cash for Impact Factors
If you are looking for an academic job in the UK then jobs.ac.uk should be your first port of call. It lists most open postdoc and academic positions that are available in the UK as well as many academic related jobs and some PhD positions. I get a summary email for physics jobs in my mail box every morning. I’m not looking for a new job as such, but the summary gives you a little snapshot of what new projects are starting up, which departments are expanding, what the trendy areas are at present etc. This monring one of the jobs that caught my eye was for a position at Qatar University. So I followed the link and had a look through what was on offer (I was mainly curious to see what research funding provision they have available in Qatar).
One of the most interesting things that is on offer is a bonus for publishing papers, a “Research Reward Program“. You get a base bonus for a paper with an impact factor of 1.00 and then for every point abaove that you get the base multiplied by the IF, up to a maximum value. The money is shared between authors associated with the University, and authors from outside the University dilute your reward. I had a quick look at exhange rates and I think the maximum you could get is about £1700. The scheme came into effect in 2009; I should probably refrain for calculating my potential bonus to date, had I done all my work there.
So this got me thinking, could this work in our University system? If we set the bar at a different level, could such bonuses be used to try and raise our collective standards? Is there some sort of incentive (other than actually keeping our jobs) that with the REF deadline starting to loom, we could use to focus the mind on getting that precious 4* outputs. The Universities get a ‘bonus’ if we all do really well, so couldn’t they pass this on?
There are of course huge potential problems. Corruption of the system is one (as pointed out on twitter by Stephen Royle (@roylelab)), but I think with appropriate oversight this might not be such a problem. The other is that setting on impact factor favours some over others – your line of work will influence the types of journals you publish in, and you can be really brilliant and relevant but never have a Nature, Cell, PNAS, PRL etc paper.
Academics, I think, like working on their own problems. Often these are niche and small scale. We are poked, prodded and shaped, often cajoled into trying to work bigger: bigger challenges, bigger teams, more disciplines. This comes from funding councils and Universities alike. In reality though I see little to inspire me, other than through self-motivation. It might be nice to see some tangible reward if I really shoot for the moon (and get there).
The other point made on twitter about this was from Pete Watson (@Lardytugboat), who suggested that our bonus was promotion (or maybe a pay rise). This is true up to a point, but I’ve never worked in a University where anyone below a Professor really gets a proper annual pay review. A Professor can put the case that they publish lots of papers and brought in lots of grants, so give them a big pay rise. Below that level you might do a review, but unless you are actively applying for promotion, it’s more of a check to make sure you are on staying on track. And then we move up a point on the pay scale anyway.
Of course, we won’t be getting bonuses. Universities can’t afford it, and I doubt the public would stomach it very readily. Clearly if someone gave me more money for doing good work that would be great, but I do think we need to generate better ways to help people go for bigger gains, less incremental work and improve the quality over quantity ratio.